With the recent closing of schools I and my membership have been asked a great deal about Teachers Pay Teachers. Is it responsible for teachers and districts to provide students with materials purchased through this service?
[NOTE: This answer is part of our ongoing response to institutions moving to online instruction as part of the world’s response to COVID-19. For additional Q&A on that, search “COVID-19” in the Ask the Lawyer search utility.]
“Teachers Pay Teachers” (“TPT”) is an interesting service that allows teachers to license (sell rights to) others who need customized lesson plans and educational material.
The member’s question relates to the TPT license, which governs what individuals and organizations can do with the content.
If the member’s question is asking: does the TPT license allow us to print and distribute the materials in hard copy for packets sent out by the District? The answer is generally: yes.
If the member’s question is asking: does the TPT license allow us to distribute the materials electronically using e-mail or a website or a Learning Management System? The answer is generally: it depends.
I spent some time on TPT’s website reviewing their “Terms of Service” and I believe teachers and organizations will need to examine the license for each separate purchase to confirm that electronic distribution is allowed.
Why? TPT’s “Terms of Service” largely allow for the creation of hard copies, but their default conditions bar online distribution. HOWEVER, TPT also allows the teachers supplying the content to loosen those default restrictions (including allowing distribution on the web, e-mail, etc.)…so while one lesson purchased from TPT might not allow a web or e-mail distribution, another might.
This can change not only from author to author, but content to content, so it is important to read the fine print.
I would add: these are early days in the pandemic response. As of March 26, 2020, TPT did not have any expressly Covid-19 policies on its website. Nevertheless, like other online and tech providers, they may realize their hour has come, and take action.
What will that action be? I can’t say; a crisis brings out the best and the worst in businesses. Some businesses will try and simply profit from the current situation; others will dig deep, conclude we are all in this together….and try to find at least middle ground.
Thank you for this important question.
USING LICENSED CONTENT TIP: If you or your institution conclude that TPT or another license does give you permission for electronic distribution, it is a good idea to take a screen shot of that license and save it (just e-mail it to yourself in a place where you know you’ll have it for 3 years after you’re done use the content). Online content providers can change the terms they post, without warning—and you want to be able to show that on the day you made the call to share the content electronically, the licensor allowed you to do so.
 Because some educational institutions own the rights to teacher-generated materials, and some do not, the Teachers Pay Teachers model is a fascinating study in copyright issues—but a global pandemic is not the time to muse over that.
 As of March 26th, 2020: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Terms-of-Service
 The Terms of Service allow you to: “Print and make copies of downloadable Resources as necessary for Personal Use. Copies may be made and provided to your students, classroom aides, and substitute teachers as necessary. Copies may also be made for students’ parents, classroom observers, supervisors, or school administrators for review purposes only. Hard goods and video resources may not be copied, shared, or otherwise reproduced.” [emphasis added]
 But not further tighten them. Like I said, a really interesting model.
 For instance, one license I looked at, for a chemistry class, said: “These resources may not be uploaded to the internet in any form (including classroom websites, personal web sites, Weebly sites, network sites) unless the site is password protected and can only be accessed by the students of the licensed teacher.” In other words: yes, you can distribute them electronically, if you use a restricted system!
 The diversity of author-specific permissions I saw on TPT was really interesting. Some folks just want credit. Others want you to not send the content, but drive people to their own personal listings (so their analytics show the hits). I bet some, in the coming days, will even change their permissions to respond to the pandemic with compassion.
Many librarians create and post LibGuides through Springshare. Right now, when an employee leaves a library, the LibGuides they created can be attributed to another library employee after they leave. Does this create a legal concern?
I am a hands-on kind of lawyer. When I do a real estate deal, I visit the property. When I advise a historic preservation group, I drag my kids to see old houses. When I represent a bakery, I try not to pack on an extra five pounds, but it’s always touch-and-go.
So, when this question came in, I hopped on SpringShare and checked out their product description for LibGuides, and pretended I was going to write one. I delved into the license terms and the mechanics of the utility. I observed how their various products work together, or a la carte.
On the SpringShare website, LibGuides is summarized this way:
“LibGuides is an easy-to-use content management system deployed at thousands of libraries worldwide. Librarians use it to curate knowledge and share information, organize class and subject specific resources, and to create and manage websites.”
I checked in with a few librarians I know (one of whom works in my office), and they reported that yes, the product is widely used and popular. While mine was a very unscientific survey, the day I hopped on, SpringShare’s web page boasted participation by “6,100 libraries” and “82 countries” and “130,300” librarians.
I noticed a lot of legally interesting things when I was down the SpringShare rabbit hole, but I what I focused on was the member’s question: is there a legal concern related to attributions of LibGuides content?
I started with the LibGuides License, which states:
OWNERSHIP OF DATA: Licensor does not own any data, information or material that you submit to the Software ("Customer Data").
In other words, SpringShare (the licensor) confirms that the subscriber (the licensee) owns the content they put on LibGuides.
The License then goes on:
You, not Licensor [remember, Springshare is the “Licensor”], shall have sole responsibility for the accuracy, quality, integrity, legality, reliability, appropriateness, and intellectual property ownership or right to use of all Customer Data, and Licensor shall not be responsible or liable for the deletion, correction, destruction, damage, loss or failure to store any Customer Data.
This means that while the licensee (the subscribing librarian or library) owns the content, they are also responsible for the consequences created by any content they don’t have the rights to (infringement claim, violation of privacy claim, etc.).
This is a very typical approach for content-sharing platforms.
The License then states:
In the event this Agreement is terminated, Licensor will make available to you a file of the Customer Data in XML format within 30 days of termination if you so request at the time of termination.
Isn’t that generous? If you remember to ask nicely at the time you terminate the contract, you (the Licensee) have thirty whole days retrieve your property.
This property arrangement is at the heart of the member’s question. SpringShare claims no ownership of the content placed on LibGuides. That content, unless licensed from another, is supposed to be owned by the licensee (the person or entity contracting with SpringShare for the service).
But is the “licensed LibGuides user” the content owner?
In the member’s question, the “licensed LibGuides user” was probably the library (it would be very unusual, and not business-appropriate, for an account for an institution to be in an individual person’s name). So, the library is the one getting assured they own the content put up through the account, and the library is the entity responsible in the event the content causes a problem (infringes copyright, invades someone’s privacy, etc.).
Now this is where the issue gets sensitive. Under copyright law, content generated by employees, AS PART OF THEIR REGULAR DUTIES, is owned by their employer—unless a contract, policy, or hire letter says otherwise. This “default rule” is spelled out in section 201(b) of the Copyright Act.
How does this play out in the work environment? It varies. Many librarians are part of a union, which means the written work they generate as part of their job might not be subject to the above-described “default rule” (a collective bargaining agreement can change the terms of employment related to copyright). Still others work in environments where this “default rule” has been changed through a policy, or a hire letter.
This lack of uniformity means that any librarian composing LibGuides, who wants to use their compositions after they move to another job, should make sure they know where they stand when it comes to “employee-generated intellectual property.” Does their workplace follow the “default rule?” Does a union contract, policy, or hire letter change the “default rule?” And is writing a LibGuide even part of their duties?
This is critical, because depending on who owns the content, they are free to do as they like with it: keep it up, remove it, change it, update it, etc. (of course, what they do on LibGuides is limited by the License and the technology). And it is also critical because the current configuration of LibGuides seems, to me, to create a potential problem.
Now, that addressed the legal part of the question; the answer is: yes, there are some legal concerns. But the “legal” concerns might not be the full scope of the concerns presented by the question’s scenario. Attribution of authorship is different from ownership, but it can be a critical issue of integrity.
My understanding of how LibGuides functions is that the account holder can change the roles, authority, and people admitted to create, modify, or access the content. Within LibGuides, subscribers have the ability to assign users (Admin users, Regular users, Editor users, Contributor users, and Patron users) with different levels of access and authority.
Within this structure, “Admin users” (who have the highest level of authority over an account), manage the Licensee’s use of the service. The settings are changeable, and different LibGuides can be assigned to different users.
But what was WILD to me is that when a librarian leaves a library, to maintain the LibGuide, the library has to assign another staffer to the Guide. That’s fine and makes sense, but because of LibGuide’s interface, that new person is then listed as the librarian in charge of the guide, and the way the screen looks (to me) the implication is that they are the author.
I believe that is the genesis of this question; people who took pride in their creation of a LibGuide first attributed to them are now seeing (implied) authorship (seemingly) attributed to another. I have to admit, whether I owned it or not, that would sting a little. Writing, even if it’s for your job, can be a very personal endeavor.
This seems entirely due to the design of the interface. Between you, me, and the Internet, it seems like a needless and utterly solvable problem. And while not necessarily a legal issue (although if the former employee owns their work, it could be) it strikes me as a serious ethics/integrity/relationships issue.
Authorship is something people take seriously, especially in the arenas of academia and publishing—worlds in which librarians play an essential role.
How can this be solved?
First, LibGuides might want to think this through and develop a solution. But until then, libraries using LibGuides should assess their legal position (do they own their employees’ work under the “default rule”? Or does a contract or policy say otherwise?) and, think how this phenomenon rests with their values. On the flip side, librarians who create a great LibGuide and then want to move on in their professional careers should pay attention to who is the LibGuide’s “owner” and be mindful that a LibGuide owned by their employer will not always be in their name. Further, the mutable nature of LibGuides (they are designed to be updated, altered and changed) means you might not always want to be associated with what the Guide turns into!
Thanks for a great question.
 As a rule, I try to avoid snark and sarcasm in the “Ask the Lawyer” service. Such rhetoric doesn’t age well, and there are defter ways to be funny. That said, this one deserves some snark. Thirty days, and then potentially thousands of dollars of your assets are lost? Not so great.
 The law reads: “In the case of a work made for hire [which includes “a work prepared by an employee within the scope [their] employment”] the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright.”
 As of March 6, 2020.
 On March 6, 2020, I found these categories on the LibGuides FAQ at ask.springshare.com/libguides/faq/1119#general.
 Hi, SpringShare! I am confident you can fix this!
 For instance, I would create a “Legacy Content and History” option for customers, where the evolving work and chain of authors could be tracked. Of course, that would still put the ultimate fate of the content in the hands of the employer, but it would empower them to maintain good feelings between librarians.